Visiting Japan Off The Beaten Path: The Gorgeous Shikoku
When travelers commission me to plan a custom Japan itinerary, the majority of them have the same request. They want to go off Japan’s beaten path, but not so far that they need to extend their trip, or skip “staple” destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. My answer—Shikoku—surprises them, but they eventually come around.
The northern reaches of Shikoku, in particular, offer an enticing array of destinations and experiences you can’t find on Honshu that’s within easy reach of cities served by the Shinkansen. These are some of my favorite places to visit in northern Shikoku.
Places to Visit in Northern Shikoku
The city center of Takamatsu initially seems unimpressive. With one important exception: Ritsurin, a garden that dates back to 1625. It is according to some (present company included) the most beautiful traditional garden in all of Japan. You can easily spend half a day traipsing through its grounds, maybe longer if you eat lunch at the on-site Garden Café.
To be sure, much of what there is to love about Takamatsu (Ritsurin notwithstanding) exists outside the city limits. The sprawling, hillside Kotohira-gu Temple, for example, sits about 30 minutes away in Kotohira. This will also occupy at least half a day. The small city of Marugame, meanwhile, is home not only to a spectacular garden, but to the understated (and underrated) MIMOCA, dedicated to the work of abstract painter Genichiro Inokuma.
Matsuyama is a much larger city than Takamatsu. That’s not the only reason why arriving here feels so grand. In addition to Matsuyama Castle, which is perched on a hill overlooking the city (and the Seto Inland Sea) and dates back to 1602, the city is home to Dogo Onsen, which is by most accounts the oldest public onsen in Japan.
To say nothing of the historical street cars that serves as the city’s primary form of transportation. Or the hot springs hotels that cluster around the historical bath house building. The site of Yushinden, where the Imperial Family once came to bathe, was first listed as a public bath in 759. The current construction only dates back to 1899.
The Iya Valley
Although it sits between Takamatsu and Tokushima and less than an hour from each, the Iya Valley can be tempting to skip right over. I urge you not to! Not just because of how charming the Hotel Iyaonsen is. Or how a Muzak version of Chopin’s “La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin” plays when you ride the funicular down to the main bathing area, which sits at the bottom of a ravine.
Nor do you need to go on marathon hikes to appreciate this scenic part of northern Shikoku. Even though more than enough trails are available. After watching the sunrise over a “sea of clouds” at Miyoshi, tap the Peeing Boy of Iya Valley on the shoulder and look down onto the river valley that gives the region its name.
Then, head to Oboke Gorge for a scenic boat ride. Or to Kazurabashi rope bridge for an experience that’s as rustic and historical as it is terrifying. Japan off the beaten path hardly gets better than this.
Tokushima’s city center, like Takamatsu’s, doesn’t initially appear to be much to write home about. However, there’s a reason why I recommend it as a great place to experience Japan off the beaten path. A quick visit to Awa Odori Kaikan will be enough to understand why it’s worth going. Even if you don’t visit in August, when the annual Awa Odori dance festival takes place, watching a traditional performance of this ancient art form will take your breath away; it also explains why Tokushima residents seem so confident, in spite of their somewhat ordinary city.
Another similarity Tokushima shares with Takamastu? Its star attraction is actually just out of town. Naruto Whirlpool sits just under Great Naruto Bridge on the way to Awaji Island, and can appear terrifying, particularly if you’re in one of the boats that motors over this strange phenomenon. But don’t worry: The “whirlpool” is an illusion—you’ll spin around, but you won’t sink into the sea.
How to Get to Shikoku
Assuming you follow my itinerary in order, begin your trip to northern Shikoku by riding any Shinkansen to Okayama. From there, ride the JR Seto Ohashi Line to Takamatsu. Then use Hyperdia to find local trains to guide you along the route. (NOTE: Transport within the Iya Valley itself is largely by bus, assuming you don’t hire your own car. That will make your life a lot easier).
From Tokushima, you can ride a JR Highway Bus to Osaka (via Awaji Island) in about two hours. You can also do this itinerary in reverse; in the context of three weeks in Japan (or a bit longer, realistically) a foray through northern Shikoku makes a nice diverse between the Kansai region and Hiroshima (and, if you’re staying much longer, Kyushu island.)
When to Visit Shikoku
Shikoku is a 365-day destination if there ever was one in Japan. Like most other places in Japan, however, it shines during cherry blossom season, whether you look out onto the Seto Inland Sea from the keep of Matsuyuama Castle, or ascend the steps of Kotohira-gu. Fall is also flattering to Shikoku; come the last week of November or the first week of December to see a truly magnificent array of colors, particularly at Ritusrin. (The Iya Valley changes a week or two before this, on account of its altitude.)
Shikoku doesn’t get snow in the winter, though the air is rather crisp and the sky clear. In summer, on the other hand, Japan’s tsuyu monsoon is in full force on the island, which is unfortunately quite prone to typhoons. Of all Shikoku’s four well-defined seasons, this is probably the one I’d advise avoiding, if I were you
The Bottom Line
Shikoku isn’t as celebrated as it should be, but it’s also closer than you think, and it’s easy to experience Japan off the beaten path there. Whether you swirl around the mysterious Naruto Whirlpools in Tokushima, bathe at historical Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama or bliss out in Takamatsu’s Ritsurin Garden, northern Shikoku is the only place in Japan you can have these iconic experiences. Shikoku’s beautiful in all four seasons, too, which simply adds to its appeal. When are you going to take the plunge?
About the author: Robert Schrader is a passionate Japan expert who unapologetically shills for Shikoku. He created Japan Starts Here to inform and inspire any trip to Japan, whether or not you plan to visit the country’s most underrated island. Follow Robert’s next trip to Japan (which, somewhat hypocritically, will be to the Tohoku region of Honshu island) on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.